Yale University - Undergraduate
A Dialogue on Safeguarding Democracy
Maddy: Hey, do you think that it’s important to live in a democracy?
TJ: What do you mean, that’s such a vague question? At least give me a definition to work with.
Maddy: Ok sure, let me Google a good one… Let’s see… Merriam-Webster defines it as “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly.” So I guess what I’m trying to ask is whether you value a system that is accountable to and acts on the general will of the people. Do you think citizens would benefit from living in this kind of system?
TJ: With a definition that loose, I don’t think democracy is any better than other systems. There needs to be more to it than what you just outlined; otherwise, any majority group could pass laws that benefits them to the detriment of a minority. They could restrict voting rights, impose discriminatory taxes, or just infringe upon human rights. Think about sectarian politics in Iraq. When the US instituted democracy, the Shia majority that had been controlled by Saddam’s Sunni regime capitalized upon it, and people like President Maliki took advantage of them. Any citizen who isn’t in the majority would live in fear in that kind of democracy.
Maddy: That’s a good point. I realize that the same thing could be said about the US since the white majority historically treated other races poorly through things like Jim Crow laws.
TJ: Exactly. An individual living in a pure democracy would have no more guarantee of safety than somebody living in any other system since they would still be exposed to state abuses spearheaded by a hostile majority.
Maddy: Hmmm. What if we amend the definition to include an immutable or nearly immutable constitution that sets out the qualifications for citizenship and guarantees everybody an equal voice and protection? This way, a hypothetical majority can’t direct the government to infringe upon the rights of others for their own benefit like you said.
TJ: Yeah, I’d be more inclined to live in a society like that, but there are definitely still problems.
Maddy: What are you thinking?
TJ: You’d still need to deal with the issue of effectively running the government. I can’t imagine a democracy functioning well if everyone can contribute their voice and vote on things. An everyday citizen would have to spend a lot of time being informed and voting on everything which would prevent them from working and contributing to society in other ways. The logistics and time consumption would be a nightmare, and take a look at China. They increased their GDP from 7% of the US’s in 1980 to 60% by 2014 without democracy or democratic institutions. They’re far more effective.
Maddy:That’s a fair point, but I think that the first definition implicitly accounts for this issue since it says that the will of the people can be exercised indirectly. So instead of Athenian style direct-democracy where all citizens vote on matters of state, people can elect a body of well-informed, intelligent people to govern and make decisions for them. If we created a body of representatives to run the state on behalf of the people, it would be more manageable since citizens would be free to focus on other affairs between election cycles.
TJ: I didn’t consider that part of the definition, but if you interpret it that way, I suppose it would work. It would still be slower to act, but under the right circumstances, it might even produce better results since the free exchange of ideas between people would promote creative and innovative thinking.
Maddy: Yeah, a system that is based around one individual is pretty limited by the ruler and their receptiveness to advice.
TJ: But if you think about it, this style of representative democracy creates some new problems as well.
Maddy: In what sense?
TJ: Well it seems like it’s sowing the seeds of its own destruction by creating a ruling oligarchy, even if it the individuals are democratically elected. What’s to stop them from accumulating power and refusing to step out of office, or worse, what happens if a populist comes around and manipulates people to accumulate power. A democratic system seems nice but unsustainable. It would just morph into something else whenever the tides of politics shifted. No citizen would feel secure in their government.
Maddy: Those are two tough problems, but I don’t think they’re fatal to the idea of democracy. We just need to ensure an appropriate separation of powers and cement faith in institutions.
TJ: You make it sound so easy.
Maddy: Well, I think that if we predetermine the reach of every representative’s power in the constitution I mentioned before and create other bodies to review their actions and keep them in check, then they can’t get too out of hand. A democracy needs to spread the power out and keep people within the government competing against each other so that one person’s ambition is kept in check by everyone else’s collective ambitions.
TJ: You’re definitely ripping off of Federalist 51.
Maddy: Maybe, but only because it’s a good idea. If you pit everybody against each other, then no individual will be able to accrue extensive power because everyone will have to fight the cumulative ambition of their peers. Also, the entire committee can’t try to seize power because we’ll have another insulated wing of government that is designed to review their actions and keep them in check.
TJ: Won’t all of that competition just compromise their efficiency?
Maddy: Honestly, their work will require more negotiating than any other system, but like I said before, the competition of ideas and ambition will bring forward the best, most well thought out plans as opposed to some half-baked dictatorial decree.
TJ: Ok, but you still haven’t addressed the issue of populism.
Maddy: Yes I did. I explained why people within the system can’t accrue too much personal power.
TJ: You did, but how would this system react to somebody who operates outside of those institutions? The whole point of a populist is that he or she can bypass institutions because they listen directly to their citizens and act to fulfill their will. They make citizens feel heard and use their support to accrue their own power which they can then use for any purpose. All of the protections we established before would be worthless, and the worst part is that it seems like the natural outgrowth of democracy since the will of the biggest constituency is channelled into a single populist.
Maddy: I understand what you’re saying, and this may seem like a lazy answer, but the way to counteract this type of issue is through faith.
TJ: Why are you bringing religion into this?
Maddy: What? No, I mean faith in institutions. You need to acculturate people to democratic systems so that they will be more dedicated institutions than to a demagogue.
TJ: You’re giving me a circular argument then. You need democracy to promote faith in democratic institutions which allows democracy to exist. How can you institute democracy where there is no democratic sentiment?
Maddy: Unfortunately, you’re right. The seeds need to be there ahead of time or cultivated during the early stages of democracy.
TJ: Exactly, you can’t just impose democracy on people who aren’t looking to adopt it. Countries like China just don’t have the culture or history that supports democracy, so how can you drop a system onto citizens who have no idea what it requires to sustain. It would fall apart. Also, if you look at fledgeling democracies, they are some of the most fragile states. How can you cultivate faith in institutions that are quickly corrupted?
Maddy: Look, you’re absolutely right that democracy shouldn’t be imposed on anyone and everyone, and democracies are at their weakest when they are first established. However, if a state can survive that initial period of vulnerability and begin to build that faith and custom, they’ll get stronger and stronger. It’s like what you said about my argument being circular, democracy engenders more democracy as it becomes increasingly ingrained into the culture and habits of the people. If a democracy can survive its rough adolescence, its citizens will certainly have more faith in institutions than they will in populists and demagogues.
TJ: Hmmm. I guess that makes sense. Although with everything that we’ve tacked onto the definition, are we still talking about democracy or have we just applied democratic principles to another system?
Maddy: I guess we’ve blended some aspects of other systems, but I think it’s still democracy at heart. We’ve just added safeguards and institutional buttresses to protect citizens and the system itself.
TJ: I think our version would be called a constitutional, representative, republican democracy.
Maddy: Jeez, that’s a mouthful.
TJ: Yeah, but I’d certainly prefer it to the bare-bones style of democracy we started with.